Bill reinstating death penalty moves out of Senate Judiciary Committee

By: - February 21, 2023 4:12 pm

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance legislation establishing the death penalty for cases where a person kidnaps, rapes and murders a minor. (Photo illustration via Canva)

Lawmakers who support reinstating the death penalty argued with opponents Tuesday over whether capital punishment is more likely to save or cost innocent lives.

Senate File 14 would reinstate capital punishment in Iowa in cases where a minor is kidnapped, raped and murdered. It moved out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday on a 10-8 vote.

Two Republicans, Sens. Jeff Taylor and Lynn Evans, voted against the legislation alongside the six Democrats.

Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said the legislation was tailored to deter criminals who kidnap and rape a child from killing the victim in order to prevent them from testifying in court. Under current law, a person convicted for the kidnap and rape of a child will get a life in prison, the same as someone who committed those crimes and also killed that child, he said. Capital punishment could prevent deaths in these cases, he said.

“The issue is saving innocent lives,” Garrett said. “We don’t know which ones, we don’t know exactly how many, but these studies tell us reinstating the death penalty will save some innocent lives. And that’s why to me, the miniscule chance that we might make a mistake is more than offset by the innocent young women whose lives we will save.”

The death penalty was abolished in Iowa in 1965. In the past few decades, Republicans regularly introduced legislation to reinstate the death penalty for specific crimes. The Iowa House approved a death penalty bill in 1995 but it was defeated in the Senate.

Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, said there are numerous studies showing capital punishment does not deter murders, many of which are “crimes of passion” and not premeditated decisions. The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), a D.C. nonprofit studying capital punishment, has published multiple studies showing states with the death penalty do not have lower murder rates than those that do not.

“If the death penalty does not deter, then the potential saving of lives down the line that Senator Garrett claims, in fact does not exist,” Quirmbach said. “In fact, those lives down the line are going to be saved if we convict the guilty person and give them life without parole.”

But there is ample evidence, Quirmbach said, that death penalty verdicts are often wrong. The DPIC found 190 people sentenced to death have been exonerated on all charges since 1973.

Garrett acknowledged in the bill’s subcommittee meeting last week that human error exists, and could lead to wrongful convictions in some cases. Quirmbach and Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, asked Garrett what error rate was acceptable for the death penalty convictions.

Garrett cited studies from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative organization, and from Professor Michael Summers at Pepperdine University showing death penalties deter murders.

He also said while human error will still exist, DNA evidence and other crime scene scientific advancements have drastically reduced the chances for wrongful conviction.

“What do you think would be an acceptable number of innocent young women being murdered down the road if we don’t instate the death penalty?” Garrett said. “How many young women are we willing to sacrifice to avoid to having to have the death penalty?”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.